"My hens have stopped laying all of a sudden."
"I don't know why my chickens have started picking on each other; they've never done this before."
"I've recently had a few eggs that were misshapen and one didn't even have a real shell... it was soft."
I don't know how many times I've been told stories like this from people that raise chickens. They want to know what's going on with their flocks. Most of these people are just normal folks like me and you that are trying to raise healthy birds for eggs or meat. But, all of them have a common problem: they aren't providing the proper preventative care to keep their flocks healthy.
You see, chickens are really good at hiding when something is wrong and they do this for a very good reason. In the wild, chickens are prey animals. If you've ever watched a show on National Geographic, you probably know that predators will watch their potential prey before striking. Predators will single out the old, sick, injured or weak animals to attack. Chickens have evolved to not show signs of weakness as a way to avoid being targeted by predators. So, when a chicken is showing signs that it's hurt or sick, that means it's really hurt or sick.
It's very easy to overlook a chicken that has a health issue. It's much easier for us to prevent illnesses and injuries than it is to try to treat them once they turn into a major problem.
I've put together a chicken first aid kit checklist that will help you to prepare a chicken first aid kit for almost any chicken emergency. You can find it for free here.
One of the easiest ways that we can keep our chickens healthy is to ensure that they are living a more natural life and are provided the best nutrition possible.
A More Natural Life
Chickens are busy bodies. They wake up before the sun and keep busy until dusk. Chickens that are allowed out during the day are often found scratching and pecking consistently throughout the day. They don't take a break and nap during the day. It's just not in their nature. When we keep chickens in a coop, we're robbing them of the ability to be active.
Chickens can become stir-crazy and bored if they are left to their own devices or are overcrowded in their coop. If you must keep your chickens cooped up, there are some things that you can do to help keep them busy and entertained during the day.
Toys can be an excellent stimulant for chickens. My two favorite boredom busters for chickens can be easily made at home with things that you probably have laying around the house.
Take an old soda bottle and remove the sticker from it. Clean it out and poke holes all over it. Fill it with scratch grains and put the top on it. Your chickens will see the grains in it and start pecking at it. When it rolls around, it will slowly let out seeds. This will provide hours of entertainment for your flock.
You can also meet their need to peck at things by hanging an ear of corn or a head of cabbage from the chicken coop. They will peck away at it. When they peck at it, it will move, making it a challenge for them to eat it. This is another toy that will provide hours of entertainment.
If possible, the best thing you can do for your flock is to allow them time out of the coop. Even an hour or two a day can have serious impacts for your flock's health. The most ideal situation would be to let them out daily to free-range, but it's often hard to do that with predators and flocks that live in suburban or urban areas.
Feeding for Health
Many chicken illnesses can be linked to poor nutrition. Even the most well-meaning chicken owners can end up with chickens that suffer from nutritional illness from time to time.
If you keep your chickens cooped up, odds are that you purchase a pre-mixed commercial chicken feed. Pelleted feed is the most commonly fed chicken feed out there. These feeds are created to meet all of the nutritional needs of chickens and they usually do a decent job at it.
However, the nutrients found in chicken feed can break down over time. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, your chickens can develop nutritional illnesses. Common signs of nutritional deficiencies are misshapen eggs, reduced laying or reduced growth rates and cannibalism.
It's important to keep a close eye on your chickens if their diet consists of commercial feed. If you start to notice health problems or reduced production, consider either turning your chickens out for some forage time or adding supplements to their diet.
An excellent supplement to add to chicken diets is the dried meal worm. They seem gross to us, but to chickens, they are the ultimate treat. They are packed with protein and nutrients that chickens crave. Meal worms can be costly to buy, but they aren't when you consider how few it takes to give your chickens a protein boost. A small handful of meal worms is enough to satisfy a dozen chickens.
Shelby DeVore is the founder of Farminence. She's an animal expert with more than 20 years of experience raising chickens for meat, eggs and show. She also taught high school agriculture and FFA. She taught many poultry science courses and coached numerous poultry judging teams. You can read all of Shelby’s Mother Earth News posts here.
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